What do Austria-Hungary’s Emperor Franz Joseph and U.S. President Donald Trump have in common? At first glance, not that much. The late Emperor of Austria and Apostolic King of Hungary (1830-1916) was an early riser and worked his way through hundreds of pages of official documents each day. He considered himself to be his empire’s first bureaucrat. Trump on the other hand, the United States’ first “TV Reality” President, likes to sleep in and barely makes it through a one-page briefing, according to multiple accounts.
Franz Joseph was a deeply religious man and a frugal ascetic who slept on a simple military bed with a metal frame. Private anecdotal evidence and the record of his public behavior suggest that Trump is not a strong believer, and his Louis XIV-inspired bedroom at Trump Tower confounds the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s Spartan ideals to say the least. Furthermore, Franz Joseph was reticent in private and public confining his remarks to his household phrase “It was nice, we were quite pleased,” during official ceremonies; while Trump’s Twitter outbursts often resemble unfiltered locker-room talk.
However, what they do appear to have in common is a narrow field of vision when it comes to questions of war and peace, most importantly the probable consequences of unilateral military action. As the Trump administration contemplates limited strikes on North Korea, dismissing the chance for a wider war that could potentially cross the nuclear threshold, it is then perhaps worthwhile to look at how the narrow vision of Franz Joseph and the leadership of Austria-Hungary triggered a military doomsday machine that plunged all Europe into war in 1914.
Well-researched books published in the last four years examine Austrian decision-making after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie in Sarajevo, Bosnia in June 1914, including Manfried Rauchensteiner’s The First World War and the End of the Habsburg Monarchy and Christopher Clarke’s The Sleepwalkers. Both books make a good case that Franz Joseph was instrumental in pushing Austria to go to war in 1914, despite the knowledge that a declaration of war against Serbia would likely trigger Russian intervention and as a result cause a European war given the rigid alliance structures of 1914.
Hannes Leidinger in his book The Demise of the Habsburg Monarchy states that Franz Joseph already resolved to go to war on June 30th 1914, a mere 48 hours after the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and his wife — days before Germany’s famous blank check and weeks away from Austria’s ultimatum to Serbia. Of course, the emperor was not alone in his bellicose attitude. “War, war, war,” was also the tenor struck by the Chief of Staff of the Austro-Hungarian Army, Conrad von Hoetzendorf, Austria’s Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold recalled of a meeting he had with the general on June 30.
Indeed, with few exceptions, notably the Prime Minister of Hungary, Austria-Hungary’s entire ruling elite pushed for military action against Serbia disregarding the risk of Russian intervention and the larger consequences of war. “Perhaps the most striking defect of Austrian decision-making was the narrowness of the individual and collective fields of vision,” Christopher Clarke writes. “The Austrians resembled hedgehogs scurrying across a highway with their eyes averted from the rushing traffic.” Why did Austrian imperial leadership display such a willful ignorance?
First, Austria-Hungary went to war for reputational reasons. Austria-Hungary drew multiple red lines during the Bosnian annexation crisis in 1908-09 and during the Balkan crises of 1912 and 1913 in response to perceived Russian intimidations and Serbian provocations, however, without ever following through on its threats of military action. Critics at the time charged the imperial leadership with conducting a passive and muddled foreign policy, which undermined Austria-Hungary’s credibility as a great power. Reading imperial documents and newspapers leading up the July 1914 crisis, it is striking how much the arguments for war, primarily centered around maintaining the country’s reputation for resolve, were similar to voices urging U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene in Syria (apart from the humanitarian dimension) in 2013.
In July 1914, the Austrian leadership was finally resolved to show strength. Franz Joseph agreed that Austria-Hungary’s “policy of patience” had run its course, according to Count Berchtold, who himself warned the emperor that the “neighbors to the south and the east would become even more confident of our impotence and pursue their work of destruction with ever more determination.” It would seem Austria had run out of options short of war. Should the empire remain passive, it would not only be purged from the ranks of the great European powers, but also might disintegrate because of Serbian and Russian pan-Slavic propaganda and influencing campaigns undermining the loyalty of the empire’s majority Slavic subjects.
“Austria-Hungary (…) would again believe in itself. (…) I have the will, therefore I am,” an Austrian foreign ministry official wrote in a memorandum in the summer of 1914 to voice his support for war. The imperial leadership saw an opportunity through war to “Make Austria-Hungary great again!”
Second, since the decision to go to war was essentially a fait accompli in the minds of imperial policymakers — it simply had to be done as the empire found itself in a “position of constraint,” according to Berchtold — the threat of Russian intervention was of a secondary consideration. For one thing, Austria-Hungary’s military leadership assured their civilian counterparts that the Army and Navy could handle a two-front war (although they had great doubts in private). In addition, Vienna almost religiously embraced German military power trusting that the German Army would either deter, or, if need arise, repulse the Russian steamroller on the future Eastern Front while Austrian troops occupied Serbia — a gross miscalculation as it turned out.
Third, Austria-Hungary’s assumptions that Russia might stay out of a conflict were not entirely unfounded. Both countries almost came to the brink of war in the winter of 1912-1913 over their respective spheres of influence in the Balkans. Vienna was opposed to Serbia gaining a territorial foothold on the Adriatic coast at the expense of Albania. St. Petersburg saw Serbian access to the Adriatic Sea an “absolute necessity,” according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov. Russia threatened war. Both sides mobilized their armies and a standoff ensued along the Austro-Russian border. Ultimately, Russia did not attack, as it was unsure of French support, only, however, after Austria-Hungary took the first steps to de-escalate the situation by withdrawing some troops from the border and making minor concessions to Belgrade. Furthermore, Russia also refused to support Serbia following an Austria-Hungarian ultimatum to withdraw Serbian troops from Albanian territory in October 1913. Belgrade had to concede to Austrian demands, which left Serbia humiliated and accelerated the formation of a war party in St. Petersburg.
Fourth, the most important and perhaps most relevant point for today when it comes to the ongoing North Korea crisis was Austria’s conviction of the rectitude of its case against Serbia following the assassinations on the one hand, and Austria’s groupthink mentality paired with an inability to objectively assess the political situation across the European continent on the other.
To the first point, Austria’s imperial leadership failed to empathize with their adversaries in Belgrade and Moscow. They were stuck in the belief of Austria-Hungary as the indispensable empire, an anchor of stability in Central and Eastern Europe, and that its campaign to militarily punish Serbia would be seen as a contribution to maintaining the established Euro-centric world order. They failed to grasp, however, that the other major powers had in essence already dismissed Austria-Hungary as an anachronism in the burgeoning age of the nation state and had accepted its decline and eventual downfall.
To the second point, the atmosphere at the court and in the ministries in Vienna was conducive to top-down groupthinking. For example, the emperor refused to meet in committee, preferring consulting with his ministers one on one, which was not conducive to openly debating issues. (Franz Joseph in general had a more passive than active role formulating foreign policy primarily approving or rejecting pre-drafted policy recommendations.) This was accentuated by the lack of an official coordinating mechanism within the empire’s foreign policy apparatus, which inhibited the exchange of different views.
“Foreign policy in the empire did not emanate from a compact executive cell at the apex of the system,” Clarke writes. “It emerged from the interactions across an archipelago of power-centers whose relationships with each other were partly informal and in constant flux.” Specifically describing the circumstance of July 1914, Clarke notes that the “hive-like structure of the Austro-Hungarian political elite was simply not conducive to the formulation of decisions through the careful sifting and balancing of contradictory information.” Instead, individuals “tended to indulge in strong statements of opinion, often sharpened by mutual recriminations, rather than attempting to view the problems facing Vienna in the round.”
The result was a glaring lack of constructive debates on some of the most fundamental issues among the imperial elite when it came to recommending to the emperor whether to go to war or not. For example: Did Austria-Hungary even have the capacity to fight another great power? What precisely were the chances for Russian intervention following an attack on Serbia? What exactly were Austria-Hungary’s objectives in launching the war? What role would France and Great Britain play in a future war? All these issues were raised at one point or another, however, no constructive debates emerged and no new consensus, besides conducting a localized war with Serbia, was found.
Everyone knows how the story ends. The military doomsday machine was unleashed, triggered by the emperor’s decision to go to war no matter what and without sufficient deliberation. Once the war broke out, Franz Joseph quickly adopted a fatalist attitude best summed up with his pronouncement: “If we go down, at least we shall go down with decency!” After the news of the first victory in Galicia against Russia had reached him, Franz-Joseph warned his heir Karl and his wife Zita: “That’s always how it starts, but this time I am sure it is the end!” The emperor’s sentiment was shared by Conrad von Hoetzendorf: “This will be a forlorn fight, it nevertheless will have to be fought, such an old monarchy and such a glorious army cannot go down ingloriously.” Franz Joseph died in the middle of the war in 1916. From 1914-18, the empire mobilized almost 8 million men, according to Pieter M. Judson author of The Habsburg Empire: A New History. Around 1.5 million were killed, 3.6 million wounded and 2 million ended up in captivity.
What lessons are to be learned from this story? Were Franz Joseph alive today and, assuming he would engage in close self-reflection about his role in unleashing the First World War (unlikely given his personality), he might have the following advice for Trump and his team mulling limited strikes on North Korea.
First, allow dissent and encourage debate between your advisers when deliberating the possibility of war. Second, create, and more importantly, maintain formal structures for policy coordination. Without such oversight, it will be difficult to implement desired policies and might confuse adversaries and allies alike regarding how and who is authorized to make decisions. In times of crisis, this can be highly destabilizing. Third, as a corollary, clearly signal intentions to all parties, especially the intention to commit to a limited military engagement rather than full-scale war. Fourth, be distrustful of military advice. Historically, military leadership has evinced a tendency to overestimate capabilities during times of crisis and underestimate their enemy (the reverse is true in a non-crisis mode in peacetime).
Fourth, don’t go to war merely to preserve a country’s reputation for resolve. This is a myopic strategy. Fifth, regularly reevaluate your relative status in the international order. Is your country really the indispensable nation/empire in the region or the world? Are you going to war because of your standing in the international system and do you have clear national interests? Sixth and most importantly, if you or some of your advisers think that there even is a small chance for your limited war to go global or nuclear, seek other means to resolve the political issue. War unleashes forces that ultimately cannot be controlled and rarely can be contained. As Eliot Cohen recently wrote: “One hundred years after the end of World War I, it is wise to remember that small violent events can trigger much, much larger ones.”
Seventh, don’t fight a war with Russia — just don’t.